December 18, 2013

KITCHELL: Will GOP become state's 'tea-totaler' party?


---- — Among the many issues Hoosiers have bandied about over the years is one many Republicans have been passionate about — drunken driving.

I don’t know that advocates of tougher guidelines for drunken driving prevention had a better advocate than Tom Wyss, a Fort Wayne legislator who tirelessly advocated the more stringent guidelines of .08 blood/alcohol level for the legal definition of driving under the influence. For years, it was stuck at .10, but as we all came to know, a fatal victim in a drunken-driving accident is just as much a victim if the driver is .10 or .08. The message Wyss sent was clear — “Think before you drink and the less, the better.”

Another advocate was former Indianapolis Mayor Steve Goldsmith. He once led a Hoosiers Against Drunken Driving conference at Ball State where students from all over the state rallied to support efforts against drunken driving.

Unfortunately, some issues have an interesting way of reappearing in other legislation. The drunken-driving issue could be raised again in the 2014 session because of a movement afoot to eliminate Indiana’s ban on Sunday liquor sales. Yes, we can gamble at race tracks and casinos on Sundays. Yes, we can buy lottery tickets on Sunday. Yes, we can buy wine in restaurants on Sundays. So why can’t we purchase liquor?

There are legitimate reasons for retailers to argue that liquor represents a huge portion of their overall sales and Sunday is a weekend day when consumers are more likely to be shopping than weekdays. Point made.

When the argument is framed from strictly a retail perspective, many legislators would probably have no problem with the logic.

But when it’s framed in the spirit of limiting access to alcohol during the weekend when Hoosiers have more free time and will be more apt to be consuming alcohol — and abusing it — then the discussion takes on a much different tone. Weekends are times when families spend the most time together. Those also are the times when the youngest drivers are on the road more, traveling to games and competitions, to shopping malls, to dates and to church. Why pollute the roadways with potentially more drunken drivers than we have already and threaten these drivers?

There’s also the moral obligation to cut off drinkers who don’t know when to stop, either because they can’t or won’t. Last call on Saturday night is a time for responsible bartenders and tavern owners to make sure their good customers return — to keep them sober enough to drive home or to call a cab. If Sunday sales are permitted, last call may become a thing of the past as drinkers continue their partying through the night and into Sundays.

This issue poses a moral argument for Republicans and a Republican governor who have the power to include the item in their legislative priority lists. By making Sunday liquor sales available in stores such as Target, Marsh and Kroger, legislators and Gov. Mike Pence could be doing retailers a favor, but consumers a disservice. There is some irony, too, in the fact that state police and public safety coalitions are again running commercials reminding drivers that if they are over the limit, they will be under the arrest. Those same commercials will likely end after the holiday season, just when the Legislature will convene for the 2014 session.

This is an issue that will divide Republicans and likely Democrats as well, particularly because increased liquor sales will mean increased sales tax revenue. We all know how much state officials love to see that kind of news in a revenue forecast.

It also will be interesting to see how many legislators will include this issue on their district surveys of constituents. This issue is one that likely will be decided by public input, outrage and support. Church groups, the Mothers Against Drunken Driving, Students Against Drunken Driving and organizations such as the Indiana State Police Alliance, the Indiana Sheriffs Asspciation, the Fraternal Order of Police and other groups may want to weigh in on this issue.

Meanwhile, the Republicans who have been known to include the Tea Party under their tent may be looking at their party in 2014 and wondering if this issue will define them as allowing liquor sales for the sake of the economy or limiting liquor sales for the sake of tea-totalers.

Dave Kitchell is a columnist for the Pharos-Tribune. He can be reached at